Rock Band Network – John Drake Interview
RBN is a user-driven community. Is the service indicative of a sea change in the industry? What role do you see social connectivity playing in gaming going forward?
We think people are keen to interact with their favorite musicians and songs, and the Rock Band Network gives them a way to be a part of the process on the music side, but also to have a hand in picking songs for their favorite video game, Rock Band. We have a ton of fans who play together online and a wild and vibrant community on both RockBand.com and Creators.RockBand.com, where music and gaming fans intersect. We think social connectivity is already a fundamental part of both music and gaming and will continue to grow.
Many people look to band profiles on MySpace or other online services like Last FM and Spotify to source new music. Are you looking to compete in this space via RBN? What are your long-term goals?
We aren’t looking to compete with these tools; we see the Rock Band Network as being complementary to these tools. We have built some pretty cool features into RBN though, including the ability to preview any track for free within the game, letting you get the browsing experience people have become accustomed to online. In the spectrum of those services though, the Rock Band Network is a great way for fans to discover new music and engage and interact with it in a deeper way.
As a developer, what are the advantages of establishing such a thriving user community? What can you learn or gain from being active in a social, user-driven space like RBN?
When it comes to something as individual as music, we know the passion of the fans is really what makes our games fun. When you find a song you love, you want to play it over and over again. The user community, in this case, the community of peer reviewers, and their passion are central to RBN, helping us define and uphold the authoring standards of songs that make it into the Rock Band Network Music Store. Having RBN unfold as an organic process with our community at the helm has really allowed some of our participants to demonstrate their leadership as passionate and educated fans capable of driving this medium forward and have taken this project in directions we would have never predicted!
What return on investment can artists expect via RBN? Do you see mass market potential in monetizing user-generated content?
RBN track sales are unique, in that they’re both a revenue source and a marketing tool. Artists receive 30 percent of every sale and tracks are priced at $1, $2 or $3 by the submitter, which is great as an ancillary stream on music they’ve created. But, more importantly, artists also get the marketing exposure that comes from being part of a popular video game. When fans find a song they love and bands do still need to promote RBN tracks to get the word out, they play that song over and over again and connect in a deep way to the music. Once that’s wormed its way into their ears, they’re more likely to buy an MP3, CD or ticket to a show. Basically, in addition to creating great gameplay levels, RBN tracks help bands create real world fans.
Is there potential for top-performing artists on RBN to have their songs featured on future Rock Band boxed releases? What ownership issues would Harmonix have to contend with in this instance?
We have a history of featuring up and coming artists as bonus tracks on our disc releases, but downloadable content really helps get tracks out in real time. That being said, if a band really stands out amongst the crowd and catches the ear of our music team, I’m sure all sorts of doors could open up for them.
How strong a link does RBN have to the music industry? Could we see an unsigned band performing well on RBN signed to a major label?
We’re seeing that right now. The Rock Band Network puts everyone on the same level – major label bands and DIY artists are next to each other in the store. We might see a traditional artist launch on Monday, a song from a TV show band drop Tuesday and an indie band from a garage on Wednesday. Bands that perform well are really the bands that promote their tracks to the audience of Rock Band fans out there, but success is within everyone’s reach.
Could you take us through the process of how a band signs up to the service, produces RBN tracks using your software and launches them online?
Sure. Bands would start by going to http://creators.rockband.com and signing up for a free account on our site. They’ll also need to purchase an XNA membership from Microsoft, which allows bands to check their files on their local Xbox 360s. We have a great process setup on our website that lets you link your accounts and get ready to rock.
With their accounts all taken care of on creators.rockband.com, artists can download tools and documents that explain the process. From a technical side, artists create separate audio stems for each instrument (guitar, bass, drums, vocals) for their song and then “chart” the notes for their tune, matching the colored gems that fall down the screen to the music for each difficulty, easy to expert. Inside of REAPER, which is a workstation for this type of work, bands can even chart character animations, lights and cameras for their song. When it’s all done, they check their work with our compiling tool, Magma, which is where rock is formed, and they’re ready to submit to the website.
Once they have a track finished, bands upload their song to the creators club for Playtesting, which is a community driven QA process. Other members of the community will play the song, compare it to the rules we’ve put in place for RBN and send detailed feedback through our web process. Artists take feedback from playtesting and make revisions to their track before submitting it for Peer Review, the final quality check in the submission process. Once the song passes Peer Review and is approved, it will be placed in quarantine where HMX runs a few more checks on the track before passing it into the store for sale. It’s all pretty accessible and we have great support on the site, allowing any band familiar with digital recording and MIDI to jump in and make an RBN song.
Will any RBN artists feature on Rock Band 3? Could the current roster of RBN tracks feature as ‘day one’ launch DLC?
Existing RBN tracks will automatically populate and be playable in RB3. We haven’t announced the full RB3 setlist yet, but all of the RB3 content will be available in the RB3 music store along with our humongous Rock Band Music Store catalogue of more than 1,000 songs when RB3 launches.
Are RBN tracks hosted by individual services (PSN/XBL) or are they hosted by Harmonix? Do tracks have to be screened by both services before being launched on the Rock Band store?
The Rock Band Network is unique in that it’s built on Microsoft’s XNA platform. This means that songs launch in real time on Xbox 360 and are passed through the XNA pipeline, which is also used for Microsoft’s Indie Game initiative. Microsoft handles the administration of payment to submitters. The infrastructure is really amazing and we’re lucky to have had access to it.
For PlayStation Network, we’ve been bringing more than five songs a week from the growing RBN catalog. It’s a different and less automated process, but it’s definitely worth it, since it’s always great to have more music to choose from.
Rock Band 3 launches September 24, read our full preview here.